The March for Women: Kingian Perspectives

As I make plans and preparations to attend the March for Women in Washington DC this Saturday with my teenage daughter—with controversy already swirling around it—I find guiding wisdom studying the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King reminds us that doing what is morally right is often not easy, comfortable or convenient. Well, my daughter does not much like crowds, and we will be getting up at 5am and being on our feet all day, but we’ve done just as much for something more frivolous such as a family vacation. No, the discomfort I believe King spoke of is much less superficial, and much more permanent. Not the discomfort to our bodies, but hurt and pain on our hearts and souls. The kind of reproach and rebuke that might come from someone whose opinions of us we care about, maybe even those we love. Or those with whom we might have marched shoulder to shoulder, whose causes with whom we may have been aligned, under better circumstances.

King is known for being a leader—one of many leaders in the civil rights movement—and I have been awed and inspired by this new generation of leaders who are engaging with the March. Several brave women appear to be living by some of the more difficult Kingian teachings, illuminating the difficulties and complexities of the “long arc” of justice that King described. Not knowing what they did not know, initial organizers first termed the event the “Million Woman March,” but rightly backpedaled and withdrew this title once it was pointed out to them that African American women in Philadelphia marched under this name in 1997. Heated Facebook discussions ensued between women about the long history of race and class tension within the feminist movement in the US, amidst reorganization and broadening of the March’s focus and policy platform to incorporate better not only women of color, but all marginalized and oppressed human beings.

It is difficult to put in words the courage one must summon to accept correction and rebuke and remain engaged in solidarity with others. It is much easier to withdraw and take comfort in those who you perceive will not challenge you. When someone is already feeling wounded, they may understandably take the simpler road for a time until they can build up the strength to engage once more. For example, I have written elsewhere (in my Whites Confront Racism and in Doane & Bonilla-Silva’s White Out about the courage and humility needed to stay on a lifelong path of white antiracism. It is not a path for the faint of heart. You will be called out more than you know. Those who feel like they are doing something special by just showing up will be in for a rude awakening. The courage it takes to say, yes, I made a mistake—not in private by yourself, but with others watching—taking responsibility and walking forward to redress one’s wrongs, is not for everyone. But King’s words can serve as a blueprint and moral compass for such a crossroads:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends [and] Not only will we have to repent for the sins of bad people; but we also will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people.

Some who originally wanted to March have now withdrawn, saying they no longer felt “welcomed.” King rightly points out that being deserted and by potential allies is the “greatest betrayal”—much more so than those who we did not expect to support us anyway.

I am inspired by Lena Gardner, a Black Lives Matter group’s co-founder in Minneapolis, who when interviewed by NPR about the March and asked whether she was hopeful or skeptical about it, answered “both-and.” Gardner stated:

We’ve been out in the streets marching for years. And a lot of white people haven’t been there with us. And now, suddenly, they feel like it’s really important that they come out. So are you marching because you’re upset because you didn’t get your way, or are you marching because you recognize that your life and your liberation is connected to mine now? And I think there’s a long way to go between those gaps. But in my work in the past two years, I’ve seen it happen. So I have hope that it’ll happen for some people. I know it’s not going to happen for everyone. But all I can do, again, is meet people halfway and say welcome to this work. It’s really hard. It’s really difficult, and there are no certain answers.

Gardner appears to be taking the first step to which King refers in this quote: “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” It would be much easier for Gardner to retreat to a safe haven, to retreat to where she knows she feels more accepted, more whole. Instead, she models what Dr. King describes in this quote about courage:

Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency ask the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But, conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.
[I thank Rev. Travis Harris for bringing the above quote and the one about silence to my attention in his recent sermon on 1/15/17. See http://www.wmbrgblacklivesmatter.org]

The organizers of the March, from the current state of their website, explicitly cite Kingian principles of nonviolence as their guiding vision. They rightly characterize nonviolence as “courageous” (don’t mistake kindness for weakness!), and note that “defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.” Their vision mirrors that of Dr. King, when he says:

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tired into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.

King’s wisdom resonates today as clear and as urgent and as relevant as it ever was. The road is not easy, but you dust yourself off, get up again, and do the work, because we all sink or swim together. Ultimately, cutting part of the human family off is not going to get any of us where we want to go.

When the world around you seems to be calling for business as usual–amidst cruelty, lies, and disregard for your human dignity–what is the morally upright course of action? King tells us it is to keep showing up, keep speaking up, and never keep silent, because “the day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die.” The Women’s March aims to “join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore.” It is surely a day that will make Dr. King proud, for it will be the result of struggles both internal and external, emerging victoriously knowing that it is precisely our differences that is our strength.

The “Birther” Movement: Whites Defining Black

Hallelujah I say, Hallelujah! Did you hear the news? Did ya? After sending a team of investigators to Hawaii, drawing the attention of the national and international media, and leading an almost six year charge of infesting the mind of those already under the influence of the white racial frame into a catnip type psychological and emotional frenzy; the “benevolent one,” Donald J. Trump, has publically and emphatically acknowledged that our President of the United States of America is—get this, “an American!” Yes it is true. Republican presidential nominee and town jester, Trump on Friday, September 16, 2016 recognized in a public forum for the first time in eight years that President Obama was indeed born in the U.S. After not only leading, but becoming synonymous with what many have described as the “birther movement,” Trump has conceded and given up on furthering the conspiracy theory that our President is not an American citizen.

Listening today in regard to the news coverage of the spectacle orchestrated by Trump, while at the same time attempting to foil my biological reaction to orally evacuate my stomach, I witnessed the all too common deflecting and reflecting of liberal and conservative political pundits on my big screen at home, and upon the satellite radio broadcasting platform. I also heard the babbling and flippant shrilling response by the mostly nearsighted list of news celebrity commentary analysts (i.e., any nut job with an opinion barbarously willing to spin emotions and misdirection to the masses absent of critical thinking). In my analysis, I argue that the heart of the issue was not discussed or investigated with a third eye, so to speak. Beyond the attempts to brush Trump’s statement off by conservatives, liberals spoke of Black anger. Specifically, the anger that they discussed was in relations to the manner in which most Blacks feel in regard to the delegitimizing of President Obama. I have come to the conclusion that their examination of the core regarding the discussion was flawed. Further, what was missed from discussion related to the initial start of the birther movement to Trump’s recent declaration is simple, but at the same time extremely complicated. Donald Trump is simply a contemporary example of a wealthy elite White male, within a long line of wealthy elite White males, exercising their self given authority to define us, determining our place in this society. The ability to hamper our ability to construct our narrative is as old to this country as the U.S. flag. This is what I feel unconsciously angers most Blacks—well, at least me.

Historically and legislatively, beginning with the transaction of Dutch traders selling twenty Africans in Virginia in 1619, Whites have controlled our definition. For example, Whites struggled between categorizing Black slaves as both indentured and lifetime slaves. Before slavery as we know it developed fully into an institution, slaves existed in a state of uncertainty. For example, a number of legislative pieces between 1639 and 1659-60, depicted black servants not as merely property, but instead as members of a shared community alongside Whites of diverse classes, including wealthy Burgesses and indentured servants. In 1659–1660, Virginia colony law fully institutionalized Black slavery for the first time. The law shaped the perspective of categorizing African slaves as commodities. Just like other items imported into the colony from abroad, African slaves were considered “other” or property. The idea of personhood like that of whites was completely absent. This perspective was galvanized in 1776 under the Articles of Confederation enacted by Continental Congress–which officially and explicitly used the term “white” in its statement about counting the population. Moreover, the defining of the slave identity once again appeared within the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Provisions created during the convention thusly gave allowance to whites running southern states to count slaves as 3/5 persons (Three-Fifths Clause) so whites there could have more representation in the new Congress.

One cannot forget the history behind the 1662 Virginia law that in particular focused on the behavior directed toward mixed-race people. The notion of the ‘one drop rule’ was consequently constructed. This legal means for identifying who was Black was judicially upheld as recent as 1985 “when a Louisiana court ruled that a woman with a black great-great-great-great-grandmother could not identify herself as ‘white’ on her passport.”

Science has also had a historical significant part in defining Black as well. In essence, Blacks were not only seen as property, but subhuman. The work of individuals such as George Mason, Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus), Louis Agassiz, and Immanuel Kant, to the ghastly experiments performed on unwilling female slaves performed by Dr. J. Marion Sims underscored Thomas Jefferson’s sentiments:

Whether the black of the negro reside [sic] in the reticular membrane between the skin and the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the color of the blood, the color of the bile or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature.

White elites have also defined Blacks through name. In 1960, the U.S. Census Bureau used the term Negro for the first time to define Black Americans. Even though Blacks began to construct their identity by replacing Negro with more empowering categories such as Colored, Black, and African American, the U.S. census continued to use Negro and refused to change the identifiable marker for participants. The decision to drop Negro as an option was not decided until 2013. This is an illustration of the power to not only control the nomenclature, but also one’s identity. All of which is within the hands of Whites.

Finally, there are countless, and too many to state here, historical and contemporary examples within the White controlled media, news industry, literature publications, and even pornography to define what is Black. Together they have identified us as the boogeyman. We are the rapist, foreigner, oversexed, stupid, and violent underbelly of U.S. citizenry. Being Black in America, one is born with an imposed identity as “Other.”

All Donald Trump has been doing for the past eight years with his investigations, statements challenging our President’s allegiance, intelligence, academic credentials, religion, and birthright, is continuing said trend. A trend that is truly “American.”

NBC Executive Screws Up in Meeting With Latino Leaders

Despite his unending fascistoid comments, NBC invited Donald Trump to host a Saturday Night Live show on November 7. When Latino personages protested against this astonishing decision, NBC stuck to its guns. Recently a group of Latino legislators, hoping to iron out any animus resulting from Trump’s appearance, met with NBC executives to discuss the issue.

(Image source: Wikipedia)

The meeting began on a bad note. NBC News President Deborah Turness’s comments about a young Latina girl were intended to show compassion. Instead, they were racially insensitive and a California legislator reacted negatively and made his views known:

Near the start of the meeting, Turness was describing a story her network had covered about Pope Francis’ interaction with a young girl who said she feared her parents would be deported. Turness referred to the girl’s parents as “illegals.” This statement did not sit well with the attendees. California Democrat Rep. Juan Vargas protested: “I’m going to stop you right there. We use the term undocumented immigrants.”

Turness apologized and attempted to mollify members of the audience by stating that “We love the Hispanic community…Yo hablo español.”

Ms. Turness’s statements were patronizing and reminded me of the old racist saying “Some of my best friends are . . .” The Latino legislators came to the meeting to discuss issues that concerned them, including Trump’s Saturday Night Live performance, and Ms. Turness’ response says “I like you and your language.” This interaction makes perfect sense when we view it in light of the dominant white racial frame, with its white arrogance and stereotyping of Latinos. It’s not necessary to reason with Latinos about grievances as long they know you like them. The belief is that Latinos’ minds are like children’s minds.

One would expect major NBC executives to address Trump’s appearance, which had created such a furor in the Latino community. But this would not be the case. Incredibly, these top executives stated that Trump’s appearance just “was a matter for NBC Entertainment, whereas only representatives from the news division were present” at the meeting with Latino legislators.

As Rep Tony Cárdenas (D-Cal) put it:

You know that [Trump is] an issue on all of our minds and as soon as you start talking about it, you say none of the executives for the entertainment (division) are here. It was a cop out. It was disingenuous.

In all likelihood NBC’s decision was based on their expectation that a program featuring Trump would receive high ratings, and they were right, for that SNL had a whopping 6.6 household rating on Saturday night. It was a question of priorities: the folks that support Trump (mostly white) count more than Latinos who don’t deserve to receive even the most basic respect and courtesy.

~ José A. Cobas, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Arizona State University